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UFC on Fox: Johnson vs. Reis – Rose Namajunas vs Michelle Waterson Toe to Toe Preview

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Phil and David break down everything you need to know about Rose vs Waterson for UFC on Fox 24, and everything you don’t about whether they’re the last Jedi.

Rose Namajunas and Michelle Waterson bring the photogenic ruckus this April 15, 2017 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

One sentence summary

Phil: The apparent finals of the UFC Strawweight Attractive People tournament.

David: The apparent non-finals of the Who Can Challenge Joanna People Tournament.


Record: Rose Namajunas 5-3 Michelle Waterson 14-2

Odds: Rose Namajunas -125 Michelle Waterson +115

History / Introduction to the fighters

Phil: Rose Namajunas has been an interesting case study in development- from an utterly wild and spazzy submission machine in that early Invicta armbar win to legit prospect and potential title challenger, she’s still had a couple of really notable bounce-backs in her UFC career. The question in this case is how much they represented temporary setbacks, or a more permanent ceiling. I tend to think that they’re more of the first than the second- Namajunas has a combination of coachability and natural viciousness that often goes far. She’s also charismatic and photogenic.

David: Namajunas is in that “maybe Cub Swanson’s better than we thought” phase, where things could break her away, or they could reveal the potential of an entertaining plebeian over the licensed poet. The loss to Kowalkiewicz kind of hurt insofar as she probably could have been assigned an easier match that might have stronger title implications. 24 is peak athlete. And you can see glimmers of where she’s headed in her most recent fights. But only glimmers. If this sounds critical, it’s within the context of the truly elite. Rose may or may not be there, and this fight will essentially prove which is which.

Phil: Michelle Waterson’s UFC debut couldn’t have gone much better; she fought the UFC’s current golden girl and submitted her within a round. At ten years into her career, this is exactly the time she needs to be making moves, and two consecutive main card billings are catapulting her into exactly the fights that the Invicta champ needs. It’s good to see. She’s incredibly likable, and while I suspect that the fact that she’s a natural atomweight is going to catch up to her sooner rather than later, she’s quickly established herself as a valuable property for the UFC.

David: “Golden girl”. That’s like calling Weeteef Cyu-bee a star of the Resistance. Manufacturing stars made sense 20 years ago when no one knew what they had, but ahh nevermind. Waterson’s dominant win over PVZ was impressive in that it was a display of what superior fighters do to inferior fighters: dominate. However, it doesn’t answer larger questions about Waterson’s future in the division, and thankfully this fight will present the answers.

What’s at stake?

Phil: Andrade has next for the strawweight belt, but whoever wins this fight is almost certainly next in the pecking order. It also feels like a key turning point for both of them in a larger sense- Namajunas risks being seen as a bust if she falters again, and I’m not sure whether Waterson has another run at a title in her in a division which is only getting more dangerous.

David: As you mentioned, a lot more than you’d expect from two youngish (not Waterson but you get the point) fighters who appear to be hitting their peak. The size issue worries me with Waterson whereas I don’t know that Rose is good enough to beat women like Gadelha and Andrade, nevermind Joanna (oddly enough, her best matchup in the context of bad matchups). Crucial move for Rose.

Where do they want it?

Phil: I think part of Thug Rose’s stumbles have been the quite dramatic changes in style which she’s undertaken. I think that the broad-brush direction of her path has been a good one, but it’s naturally come with some growing pains and some confidence issues. So, she was an aggressive clinch and scrambling fighter at first, then developed into a outside kicking and power sub game, then switched over to more of an outside striking game. The kicking game was near-worthless against shot takedowns from Esparza, and developing her boxing came at the expense of confidence in her clinch game, so that she could be shaken by Kowalkiewicz.

Still, while the paint has still been drying on the new portions of her game, it’s worth pointing out that it’s still a basically well-constructed approach- it just needs tuning rather than rebuilding at this point. She has a long, lethal jab and cross, which she packs real power into, and is a murderous, icy top position grappler and ground and pounder.

David: I think there’s a causal relationship between her changing style and improved mechanics. On TUF, she was a helicopter pugilist. All wind and no sails. Pay attention to the difference between how she chambers her straight right between the show and now. They look like they’re thrown by completely different people. Before, she was sweeping with her fists. Now she uncorks them from the hips. As a result, she’s more confident about the array of angles she can attack from. This has both benefited her (she struggles with PVZ without these changes), and also inhibited her in its own strange way (the Kowalkiewicz fight, as you mentioned).

Phil: While Namajunas has been working on developing a consistent mid-range game, Waterson has stayed true to her Karate roots: all the way in, or all the way out. She normally circles at range, throwing a steady diet of round and front kicks, and punching into the clinch behind a right cross and marching flurries. Once inside, she’s a decent if not overwhelming clinch striker, working for the double collar tie or switching to head and arm or trip throws.

Like Namajunas used to be, Waterson is a pathologically aggressive submission hunter- this works well sometimes (VanZant) and just ends up getting her in trouble at others (Tiburcio)

David: Waterson has clawed, punched, and scraped her way into a Rose-like role away from the UFC. A dynamic fighter in many respects, she has never risen beyond gatekeeper status, but that’s not to say she’s not potentially on the cusp. Waterson excels in your typical karate archetype role. Staying on the outside with her kicks, she’s also effective counter with a right hook to stay enclosed in a karate hottie snowglobe of death. Unlike some other karate expats, she’s comfortable in tight quarters. Her clinchwork isn’t necessary threatening, but she maneuvers well in both directions; working clinch takedowns for grappling offense, or scrambling to reset with an educated poise.

I wouldn’t say her grappling got her trouble against Tiburcio, though. Crappy comparison, but it’s like Yahya getting submitted by Gesias Cavalcante; results aren’t necessarily a reflection of rank. Michelle worked over Tiburcio on the mat, and then Tiburcio then capitalized with a guillotine; a submission move I know grappling nerds will remind me of how skill intensive it is but that I still maintain is the rare submission that relies more on latent variables like strength, durability of the chokee, time of the round, et cetera over complex mechanics.

Insight from Past Fights

Phil: Namajunas-Torres is the obvious one, really. Torres has a very similar blitzing, outside game, which combines with her being somewhat undersized. I would (perhaps controversially) suggest that she’s actually a bit better than Waterson at this stage in their careers though, albeit with a more process-oriented and decision-heavy style. The fight was close, but it was difficult for Torres to get in past the jab and thrive in the clinch.

David: Watching Kowalkiewicz vs. Namajunas again for really no readily apparent reason, Namajunas was neutralized on the ground in commanding fashion. I wonder if this is some oddball function of women’s MMA; the variety of offensive work executed by female fighters doesn’t seem proportional to their defensive prowess. This isn’t #problematic is it? Like any sport in its relative infancy, I chalk it up to sport trappings rather than something dumb like “gender gap”, but where this is critical is in who has the better pressure grappling. Namajunas might be stronger, but Waterson is probably just a smidge more technical, which makes this fight harder to predict than I thought.


Phil: None really spring to mind. Mental state, perhaps? I think there is a possibility that Thug Rose is a bit of a front-runner, but I’m not sure if that’s been the case in her fights so much as frustration has.

David: Probably Waterson’s quality of competition. PVZ and Magana were not good tests. Magana registers stronger on the Twitter troll scale. So that’s the issue. Rose is exactly the kind of competition Waterson isn’t used to; young but experienced, tough but skilled.


Phil: A lot of people think this fight is extremely close and I have to say that I… don’t really? Namajunas has a big size advantage, is a more effective range striker, and was at her most punishing and clinical against an aggressive scrambler in VanZant. I think she’ll pull away slowly in striking exchanges, and quickly on the ground, where she’ll be far more likely to pick up top position. Rose Namajunas by unanimous decision.

David: The thing with Waterson is, IMO, that the size and range of Namajunas projects to have a similar effect that short but active Elena Reid had; cutting off space against Waterson tends to neutralize her gifts. Namajunas may not have Reid’s boxing pedigree, but her activity and length should be enough in a what I think will be a close (albeit now necessarily competitive) affair. Rose Namajunas by Decision.

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